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Schubert - Symphony No.

8, Unfinished (1822)

The Unfinished Symphony of Franz Schubert, a staple of the orchestral repertoire, did
not always share a seat at the masterpiece pantheon with works written in the same general time
period, such as the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven, which premiered in 1824. No, the
Unfinished was, above all else, a forgotten work for decades. The two complete movements
we hear today were entrusted in 1823 to a certain Josef Httenbrenner as a gift for his brother
Anselm, president of an influential music society in Graz, Austria.
There they remained until the works eventual premiere in 1865 (37 years after
Schuberts death), as a result of Machiavellian bargaining by Josef as a scheme to further
popularize the compositions of his brother. Ironically, it is this incomplete work of Schubert that
remains in the Western canon, and not a single work of either Httenbrenner brother.
Franz Schubert was certainly a prolific composer, having had written over 1,500 works in
his short life of thirty-two years. Schubert began his basic musical studies under his father, a
famed local schoolteacher, until young Franz came to the attention of Antonio Salieri, who
singlehandedly propelled the precocious youths career forward for the better part of a decade.
Though the less-than-five-feet-tall Schubert was referred to as Schwammerl (Little
mushroom) by his friends and colleagues, his status in Vienna quickly picked up steam amongst
its most dedicated art connoisseurs. For a man to have written more than 600 songs, 8 complete
symphonies, a wide swath of the solo piano and chamber music repertoire, how could it be that
half a symphony was kept from being put to page by one of historys most diligent composers?
There are certainly many theories, and very few hold any weight.
We know for a fact that Schubert did, indeed, begin a third movement, with several
completions having been written and performed (with varying degrees of success). We also
know for a fact that, in the same year that Schubert delivered the first two movements to the
Httenbrenner brothers, he wrote a single work in B-minor, the key of the Unfinished. This
was an Entracte from the incidental music written for the Helmina von Chzy play, Rosamunde.
Schubert, being a man of compositional efficiency, did indeed re-appropriate his works, having
used his overture to Alfonso und Estrella for the 1823 production of Rosamunde, and the main
theme of the plays third Entracte for a subsequently written piano impromptu and string
quartet. Thus, it is very much within the realm of possibility that what was originally envisioned
as the finale to the Unfinished Symphony became this Entracte.
However, the music truly confirmed to belong to this symphony (i.e. the Allegro
moderato and the Andante con moto) does stand on its own. We begin, reminiscent of the
opening of Beethovens Fourth Symphony and the Ombra style of 18th-century Viennese-
Italianate opera, with a guttural supernatural utterance in the basses and celli. Akin to the
appearance of some other-worldly creature or spirit on the opera stage, Schubert begins the work
with wide-spaced voicings set underneath a woodwind melody, before immediately erupting into
pangs of Sturm und Drang. Rather than an elaborate section of closure, Schubert nearly fades
directly into the serene key area of G major, creating a hesitant dance, of sorts, complete with
syncopated off-beats atop a low string melody. This serenity is short-lived, for the full orchestra
erupts unexpectedly with blaring minor sonorities, before the return to the opening B-minor bass
theme. Schuberts dialectic between the major and minor modes comes full force in the
development, as he cycles through an seemingly endless entanglement of sequences and
cataclysm, before somehow finding his way back to the tonic key.
The second movement, though certainly of a less mysterious tone than the first, the
similarity in tempo, meter, and rhythmic construction allow the two movements to share a sort of
bifurcated unity, absent in performances of the attempted completions of the third movement and
substituted Rosamunde Entracte. Like the first movement, our slow-and-steady isolated melody
is followed by lighter melodic material atop syncopated off-beats. However, while the first
movement was punctuated by banging outbursts, the seconds lightest melodic material is
supplanted by a fiercely passionate strain resonating throughout the entire orchestra. With shorter
and shorter allowances of serenity before erupting into true Schubertian pathos, our pizzicato
strings return, before, like the top of a massive precipice, a violin melody whispers into the cold
distance. Nursed back into the company of the orchestra, Schubert ends the work with a wind
chorale, leaving the work, in one sense incomplete, but all the while with its final published
utterance being one of optimistic serenity.

- Stefano Flavoni